Monday, July 17, 2006

Cycling adventures built for two begin in Kyrgyzstan

Chris Writes:Half way across the globe and a world away, we continue to bike and make slow progress.

After a late start from Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, heading south we found what Kyrgyzstan has plenty of, WIND. Making slow progress we inched our way closer to the mountains and our first pass. At the pass, a mere 2800m we wondered how on earth we would find ourselves riding over 4000m through Tajikistan and Tibet, all the while staying alive and enjoying ourselves.
For the past two weeks our spinning wheels took us through desert scrub, high plains and ragged mountains. The towns we pass and the people we meet are all outgoing, offering us tea, home-made sour cheese balls and ample amounts of bread.

Climbing into the mountains, we start our training for Tajikistan, cursing the wind for our slow progress but loving it for the cooling breeze it provides under the hot and unending sun. Slowly our lungs adjust and our legs strengthen with the steep climbs.

Hospitality is a true speciality here in Kyrgyzstan and the people here know how to provide for beautiful memories. While slowly spinning over one of the smaller passes in order to get to the larger ones and dreaming of cold beverages we find a wonderful waterfall, just feet from the edge of the road. Minutes after we begin enjoying the crystal clear water an overly crammed car appears, the type found on many college campuses. A family spanning three generations pours out. Within seconds the usual questions of "Where are you from? What are you doing this for? Who is paying you?" starts. Once the women are satisfied with our answers they instruct their grandchildren to stop playing in the water and fetch us the partially eaten lamb ribs that have been riding in the trunk of their hot car. With a flowing movement of the hand one of the grandmothers removes a piece of fat, the size of a large mans thumb, opens my mouth, inserts the fat and clamps my jaws shut, all the while scolding me for being so skinny. We are so glad to receive ANY food as our supplies have been dwindling from the ravenous appetites we now harboring. Sage, my riding partner is hardly spared as the second car pulls up and the fathers and sons pour out, obviously still enjoying the vodka they had consumed several hours ago. The questions start again and then the bottle of vodka is called for. Being the only foreign male, I am offered the first drink, making it a hard drink to turn down. Oblivious to the remainder of the climb we have to undertake, our new friends insist we drink and enjoy our good fortune. One of the mothers tells Sage in broken English that today was a family member's wedding, the reason everyone is so merry.

While cycling the first real pass and cranking the pedals for over 20km and 5 hours we finally near the top. As the distance to the top of the pass shrinks, we watch as children and grown ups from alike run from their two yurts, up to the roadside, to greet us. The are enthusiastically patting us on the back, raising their hands in cheering fashion and offering us a big glass of kumuiz, better known as fermented mares' milk (the milk from birthing horses, believed to cure whatever ails you and slightly alcoholic in nature). After we make introductions and pass out the remaining toys to the children, one of the women invites us in for chai. The word chai is used as a general term for tea and bread here. As we turn and head toward the yurts, the younger boys eagerly push our overloaded bikes down the grassy slope, other children dance, laugh and play with the new toys all the way to the two structures sitting on the only flat ground found while we hurriedly change into warmer clothes. Once inside we are greeted by a warm stove, fresh, hot bread and a warm smile from the grandmother of the house wrapped in wool blankets. For this particular event the children are not allowed in, only the adults. This does not stop the kids from peeking their curious heads in on occasion or making up silly excuses for entering. The old man to the right of me, now leaning heavily on my leg asks me about the woman next to me, he assumes that she is my wife. After a few minutes he starts giggling like a school girl and in a quiet and shaky voice asks me in slurred Russian how the sex is or something on the subject. Once the man of the home hears the hushed words he immediately and loudly changes subjects, to something more G-rated. The old man now less dependent on my knee, is still laughing quietly, oblivious to his surroundings or the change in conversation.

After only 250km and ten days of riding, pushing and carrying our bikes from Naryn to Kazarman to Jalalabad enjoy two whole days of rest in Osh. The two days are spent cleaning the bikes, doing minor repairs and tightening anything that looks like it could loosen up, then there is shopping and internet to contend with. The hills are steep, full of loose rocks, rutted and shear drop offs. Riding down the other side of the passes, the gravel under our bike tires gives one the feeling of cycling on marbles rolling on clear glass, at times. All the while, being sure to stay clear of the bowling ball sized rocks that appear sporadically in the road. We stop for a rest, and get to watch the only car we have seen in hours hurtle down the mountain slope, oblivious to the dizzying heights, just inches from their car.

Old men stare in disbelief, women stand in awe and kids run next to or behind us, as we pass through the small villages. The people we meet on the roadside always ask us if we are sportsmen (athletes) and who is paying us to do this? We try and explain that we are on this trip to meet people like themselves and to experience foreign cultures and customs. And no, we are certainly not athletes, just two ordinary people who love to eat and cycle. And no unfortunately there is no one to date who has stepped up and offered to pay us for all of this hard work.

As hard as the days are or surely will be, we continue to enjoy cycling the plethora of dirt roads, climbing and descending passes and rolling through little villages not even given a chance on our maps. The food is always fantastic, the watermelons are as ripe and red in the center as strawberries and the meat is incredible fresh despite a clear lack of refrigeration. For two average people who enjoy bicycle travel a little off the map, Kyrgyzstan could not have been better.

We are looking forward to Tajikistan, now just over a week away. We are told Tajikistan is as wild as the American Wild West was during its hay day. The next six weeks will our training ground for Tibet as most of the country is well over 4000m and quite desolate. The roads are reported to be in very poor shape but the people's hospitality is said to be the most generous of any Central Asian country. Cycling through Tajikistan we will be rolling south along the Pamir Highway then turning left and entering the Wakhen Valley, then bicycling along the Afghan/Tajik border until the village of Kharugh.

As for now, we are off to enjoy our last hot shower for several weeks and find enough food to fill our hungry bellies.

Journey On

Training Wheels

It's been two weeks of firsts. We completed the shakedown leg of our bicycle trip: Naryn to Kazarman to Jalal-Abad, and now we are in Osh. It was only about 250 kilometers. How could it have taken us 10 days of riding? Well, I guess because we were just starting out.

We had our first rain- the exact second we actually pushed off and got into our toeclips. But we rode on into what turned out to be the only rain we cycled in for the whole 10 days. A half kilometer later, we had our first mechanical problem- a bungee cord left sitting on the rear rack found its way into Chris’ rear sprockets. Less than 10 more kilometers down the road, we got to our first little pass. That night, our first thunder and lightening- with the added entertainment for me, of Chris’s nighttime antics. I woke up in the middle of the night to find him trying to crawl out of the tent. He wanted to watch the boy herding cows against the stormy, electric night sky.
He’d warned me he talks in his sleep but I hadn’t heard about the walking. I insisted he was dreaming, he insisted he was wide awake. But logic won over his feeble mind when it was pointed out that boys don’t herd cows in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm. The next night he saved me from falling off a roof. But at least I was prepared for it when he woke me up yelling, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

On our fourth day, we had our first pass. It took less than 5 hours to summit and we were pleased that we felt no effect from the altitude, having become well acclimatized during our previous days spent backpacking and trekking up to 12,000 feet.

One of our firsts will no doubt not be our last. Sad to say, it was our first headwind. In fact, it was a week of headwind. Relentless. People had a strange concept of the birth of this breeze. Everywhere we went, they told us that just over the hill, there was no wind. I think they just have never been over the hill. Another bit of useless advice was that the wind only started after lunch. Well, we’d start out earlier and earlier each day- but guess what? So would the breeze. It was driving one of us crazy but at least the other one, the one who was drafting behind the wind-breaking leader, would appreciate the cooling breeze that kept the 90 degree temperatures at bay.

Another first was quite hard to accept. Our first lift. Granted, it was the third offer in two days. My jiloo duk (stomach) had cancelled my appetite so I was hungry and weak, and the wind had slowed us down. Once we broke down and accepted the ride, we had no regrets. Especially looking at the gravelly, 13-kilometer climb.

We also had our first encounter with the traveling watermelon man. About 15 cold and thrilling kilometers down the other side of the pass, we actually turned and rode back up when I understood what the man was shouting from his parked Niva. We sat on the rocky ground, slurping and smiling and spitting seeds, incredulous at our good fortune.

Well, now you are looking at my last first- my first photos ever posted to a blog. Thanks to Edilbek Manabaev in Osh, the most knowledgeable and friendly and helpful Kyrgyz man I’ve so far met, you are able to see these pictures and read some of the snippets I wrote in my tent.

Snippets from the Tent
June 26. Karakol. We're finally ready. Almost. We've still got a phone call, internet, and lunch shopping to do on the way out of town. Oh, and a bit of sightseeing.
We've really had a fantastic week here in this mountain town just past the east end of Lake Issyk Kol. We had a delicious swim in a protected cove on the ride out here. Our taxi driver was new, and very patient. When we got to the Vogzal, I'd forgotten that I had planned to find a Universal - a station wagon- to transport the 2 of us and our bikes the 400 kms to the capital of Issyk Kol Oblast. But when we got to the place where the taxis hover, looking for clients to all destinations Kyrgyz (except Osh, which has its own bazaar meeting place),someone recognized me and put me in a taxi to Karakol. With his brother, or cousin, or whatever you might call the relationship between him and the driver. It took an hour for Chris to break down the bikes sufficiently to fit them in the Audi trunk. Then we drove all over town to do the final errands _(now there's a word with no meaning: final)_ except he was very unfamiliar with Bishkek so I had to navigate. Anyway, we made it out to Karakol where we settled into our 5 bed yurt at Turkestan Yurt Camp, in the center of town.
Sergey has done an incredible job with this place since I was here 6 years ago. Lots of strategic plantings and yearly expansion has turned this place into a shady hobbit haven of colorful yurts.
We took a day-ride to the local beach. Young people were fascinated by our bikes, but one young man, a Muslim in his early 20s, mainly enjoyed the chance to practice his English and learn more about Americans. He asked about our relationship and the age difference. He guessed us to be 6-8 years apart, and put Chris at 30. So I guess I’m 36 now, which suits me fine. The water was refreshing, but a little dirty, as the nearby river empties into this cove of the lake. On the way back we stopped at Gulya's, Amy's host mother. She prepared a fantastic spread of chilled eggplant rollups with cheese and tomato, the usual homemade jams and bread and fresh thick cream, endless milky tea and bantering in three languages with various translations going back and forth. I asked her son Samat about the bandage on his finger and the iodine painted up his arm. He showed us the cut on his finger that he got a few days prior when stripping some wire. Then he showed us the puffy red line under the iodine stain that had already reached his arm pit. It was hot to the touch and he felt himself to have fever. We decided to treat him with Cipro for 5 days. I later found out it worked. They sometimes take these things so casually, but both Chris and I felt it was very serious.
Next day was the 50 km roundtrip mountain bike ride up the Karakol Valley, my favorite local Kyrgyz haunt. It wiped me out. I must have been in fantastic shape last year, because it was a breeze then, but I was struggling up the hills this time. Of course, lack of acclimitization -it is 1600-2600 meters, this ride-and a bit of residual jet lag- we'd only been in country 5 days- could have contributed.
After that was a day of organizing in the morning before we set out for our backpack trip around 1 o’clock. We ordered a taxi just to expedite the running around that had to be done, and it turned out to be Valera, Alsu's husband. I had loaned them $100 last May to buy the car so that he could start driving cab. They have had a successful year, except for the unnecessary loss of their 3-day old son, so they were able to repay the money when we returned from the trip. I suppose our 20 dollar cabfare helped.
The hail on the way there was a sign of things to come. We took Assan, a 10 dollar a day porter, who carried our loads like a Nepali-in flip flops. We carried 20+ pounds each too. The way in, along the Jetti Oguz Valley is beautiful in itself. I'd ridden up the previous year but as we neared the place where we headed west towards Telety Pass which ends in the Karakol Valley, a sight emerged that I had never imagined. Then I understood the directions Tahir was giving us, “Across from the White Mountain.”
"Which mountain is it? I asked, as I was following along with the map during the directions giving phonecall. (He was supposed to guide us on this trip, and or his friend Loha ,but that fell through. Taha told us several days ahead of time that he wouldn't be able to go after all, but Loha only told us at 11pm the night before the trip was to start. That's why we had such a late start, because we were trying to find a cheap guide or a decent porter. The first porter that we got was a skinny as a rail and probably still in high school. Didn't suit us for crossing a 3850 meter pass with a snowy, 40 degree descent. Assan at least, was beefy looking and came to us through someone I knew. He worked out okay, except when we descended waist-deep snow going over the Telety and camped in a down-our- we ended up having to cook and serve him dinner because he was recovering in his tent. But back to the the white mountain- it was a wall of snow and glacier and a delightful surprise. We turned past it all too soon and made our way up through a forested trail that let us out into a high meadow where we camped amongst curious cows. Here Assan earned his keep, as he tossed stones and Kyrgyz epithets at the invasive bovine beasts.

July 8
That sliver was not a river, but just the reflecting gravel road stretching even farther into the uphill headwind.
"This is not my idea of fun," I recited silently, even while knowing that it wasn't helping me get any closer to water, which meant camp. Of course by now I've arrived, because you always get what you need when you need it. Tonight it was not only a clear stream to camp by, but there was a secluded 2-foot deep, fresh running, bathing pool; a spring "bubbling out of the heart of the earth," as the proprietor of the Shorpo, Tea and Bread truck stop across the way pointed out; and soft, green, level grass to place our tent. Which is currently being buffeted by very strong winds. But the road was hard today. I actually broke down with doubt. “Will I really be able to make this?” It's only our third day, but it seems that 40 kms a day should not be so hard. But we've had a wicked headwind. The lobsterman says 25 knots with gust over 30mph. All I know is that I rode downhill in third gear and had to walk going up. The gravel was loose, the surface was washboard and the temperature was in the upper 90s. As I said, not my idea of fun.

July 9
"Why don't you go faster?" asked the Russian-speaking kid riding double on the horse, as he looked at Chris, ahead, and then back at me, balancing carefully while creeping uphill in my lowest gear.
"Wind, load, grade," I replied, leaving out that I was tired, female, and almost 50.

This was after a filling visit at one of the yurts at the top of the pass. Delicious sheep shin and noodle soup, whole wheat flat breads and the Kyrgyz treat called kaimak- a sweet cream that spreads like butter and is made fresh every day. Four and a half hours, 20 kilometers and a 1075 meter climb with more than 33 switchbacks. That's almost 3500 feet climbing to an altitude of over 9400 feet. Not bad for the 4th day of our trip. Especially since yesterday, I was about to give up. In fact, this morning, I was very nervous about my performance. Not that I was being judged by anyone but myself. I did have to trade Chris some weighty food for the lighter stove and bowl, and I wore my boots instead of packing them on the bike, but it was still me turning those crank arms up and up the hill.

What do you call a cooling breeze from behind? A tailwind? A Godsend.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Galloping on the Edge of Paradise

Approaching the 3971 meter pass after lunch, the rain begins. We don full length, four-pound pale green Russian military rain slickers, and tighten the hoods around our faces as our five horses pick their way up the grassy southwest slopes towards Ulan Pass. I wondered why the river was called that- ulan meaning red, in Kyrgyz- when the waters were so blue. But as we rounded the corner, traversing slowly up, I got a glimpse of red sandstone, eroded beneath the green and rock cover. Just as we reached what seemed like the pass, the hail began. This time we were not as lucky as during our backpack trek over the Telety Pass in Karakol, because the ice stone- mundoor in Kyrgyz- were hitting us straight through the openings of our hoods. I agreed with the horses who reeled themselves around to take the sting on the backside. Just then, Albas, our lawyer cum horse-guide, turned and said, “Take care” as he prepared to go over the edge. I moved to the rim myself to see what kind of challenge awaited us this time. But at first I couldn’t determine it. There was no trail over the edge. And the terrain down to the no trail was steep, rocky and slick with rain. I got off the horse to walk.
“We go by the way,” Albas said, and as he pointed, I could see that I would have to stay seated on my red and white steed, for the way, was up the red river. Through it, in it, next to it, over it. Wherever the horses could find footing. I could hear Chris laughing and cheering his horse on as he slid and skidded down a meter-high mud step. Being the cautious person that I am, I quickly determined that I would be walking over that obstacle, and got off on the right side, which was the wrong side, of the horse. It was a tense ten minutes for me as we picked our way upstream, crisscrossing between small boulders and slipping through wet, muddy scree above the not so deep, river. A slot canyon. In cold, wet, slippery conditions, on horseback.

It seems that each time we approach a tricky part, like the soundtrack of a dramatic scene, the weather plays its ominous notes- wind, hail, rain and snow. The trick is to recognize the joke, and enjoy the song. The truth is that Chris and I are competent in the mountains, and travel safely, with our eyes open. Usually.
There was a point, on the second day of this week-long horse trek, when we came out from the shadow of one range into an immense valley, maybe 50 or more kilometers long and about 10 across. Chris had just commented how hard it would be to find your way through there when Albas confessed that he a little bit, didn’t remember the way. We pulled out the map, the three of us, and noted that we hadn’t been following along up til now. Most of the terrain was on another quad, a sheet which we didn’t have. Luckily the sky was clear and there were easily definable features. And then for confirmation, a shepherd appeared in the distance and seconded our route.

It always seems to go that way when traveling: what you need comes when you need it. Like yesterday afternoon. We arrived on day 7, in Naryn City, the capital of Naryn Oblast. Our “taxi”, a scarred, rusted and repainted Russian Lada, drove through the quiet main street while Albas was off looking for a driver to get us the last 60 kilometers from Ak Muz, white ice, the town where we ended our trek. I put my arm out to carstop, and the young driver and his Parkonsonian father gladly invited us to join them for the ride, and some som. Although each seat should cost only 50, we somehow agreed to pay 200 for the two of us, even though we did get another 40 som paying passenger at the edge of town. But neither of us cared to haggle over the extra couple of dollars. It was a pleasant hour’s drive with a pit stop in the mountains at the outskirts of town. You never know where you’ll find a toilet in a more developed area, or how challenging it may be to squat down.
We got dropped off in the center of Naryn, and that’s when it started to become apparent that our overpaying was not without consequence. We got stranded without any som in our pockets. The banks were closed for another hour and a half for lunch. And we couldn’t pay for anything- not internet, not food, not even a phone call. And we were hungry, passing by the food stalls with fresh tomatoes, Ashlan Fu (a cold, spicy noodle concoction), and ice cream, as we decided to walk to the bank to wait for its after lunch opening, toting our packs and extra items and wanting just to rest in the shade. And that’s when I first told Chris that I loved him. For he remembered that in his dirty shorts, that hadn’t even been thought of since the start of the rainy cold horse trip, were hundreds and hundreds of som. More than 30 dollars. We were rich! We headed back to the spicy noodle lady. I was surpised at how good it was. Everyone always says that the best Ashlan Fu comes from Karakol, and here we were, in another Oblast entirely, and this was the best I’d ever tasted. When I told her that, she told me that she was from Karakol, Tyup, in fact, just 30 kilometers away.
“How did you come here?” I wondered “Were you kidnapped?” Yes, she was, she told me, her head dropping just a bit. Bride-kidnapping is an illegal and vile tradition were men and their friends, especially in more rural areas, stalk and capture a woman to join the family as a milk slave and baby-maker. At least that’s how it goes at it’s worst. The girls and woman usually make the adjustment, and admit in many case to learning to love their unchosen husband, and in some cases the practice is just a ritualized conclusion to the prenuptial, consensual dating that has occurred. But usually the woman is snatched away from her personal goals and education aims, and forced into the tradition role of mother, mender, cook and tea-server.
“Sad?” I asked, in my one-word Russian way.
“Of course.” She only goes home once a year, always in summer, as that’s the best time, she explained. I personally like the clear, dry, sunny winter days after each snow fall, but then again, I like to ski.
So, Chris and I were enjoying our lunch, with fresh round bread, almost like a deep dish pizza crust, when I happened to glance up and there was the one Peace Corps volunteer in the area that I knew, and was trying to reach, but couldn’t manage to get through to on the cell phone. Three hours later, our laundry dropped off at the service- next day for 2 bucks, our baggage safely stored at Izzi’s apartment where we could stay for free during our time in Naryn, and her key zipped safely into Chris’ pocket, we found ourselves at a bona fide Fourth of July barbeque eating hot dogs and hamburgers and drinking decaffeinated iced tea with actual ice. We ate watermelon and brownies with decaf coffee and enjoyed the fantastic hospitality of some Christian volunteers who are long-term local residents of Kyrgyzstan. In fact, Nancy has been in country for 12 years, and just so happens to be an alumnae of my alma mater, Gordon College. Small and wonderful world.

So this is a glimpse of our travels. We are now doing the final business. Post some news, pick up the laundry, repack the bikes- and replace my headset bearings. In two hours we need to head to the banya and tomorrow we expect to start a 10-day ride to the city of Osh, where we will have our next dose of civilization. We would both no doubt write lots more, but an unexpected fate has befallen us. We seem to enjoy each other’s company to such a degree that so far we have spent little time reading, writing or in self-contemplation. Worse things could happen.

For the most part, these past three weeks since leaving the US have been the like the flightless soaring on horseback, across the wilderness and pastures of this fantastic, fairy-tale land. Exciting, effortless, gliding into the present. Galloping on the edge of paradise.